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Salmon: Healthy Fats From the Sea & Salmon: Wild vs. Farm Raised
By Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S.,
Author of The Healthiest Meals on Earth

Salmon: Healthy Fats From the Sea

According to the U.S. National Fisheries Institute, the per capita consumption of salmon in America went from less than a pound a year in 1992 to more than 2 pounds a year in 2006. And that's only an average. Among health-conscious Americans it's not unusual to eat salmon weekly -- or even more frequently. The reason? Salmon is loaded with two of the healthiest fats on the planet: the omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). And it's absolutely delicious here in Broiled Salmon with Tamari-Orange Marinade.

Essential fatty acids were discovered in the early 1930s by husbandand-wife medical team George and Marilyn Burr. The Burrs found that rats deprived of fat developed a number of metabolic disturbances and symptoms, including scaly skin, growth retardation, and reproductive problems. Once fat was reintroduced into the rats' diet, most of these problems disappeared. This led to the discovery of essential fatty acids, which are fats that are essential for health and that the body can't actually make on its own -- they need to be obtained in the diet.

Even though the two fatty acids in salmon, DHA and EPA, are among the most important compounds in human nutrition, they're not technically essential fatty acids. Why? Because the body actually can make them from another omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, which is essential. But what the body can do and what it actually does do are two different things. Even if you're taking in plenty of alpha-linolenic acid from flaxseed (which most people aren't doing to begin with), very little of the alpha-linolenic acid actually converts to DHA and EPA, so you wind up noticeably lacking in these two incredibly important nutrients. And that's not a good thing at all.

This is especially tragic because it's so simple to get enough DHA and EPA. They're packaged together in one tidy food: salmon. DHA and EPA work together brilliantly. And their combined benefits to your health are beyond stunning. Hundreds of studies show that the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon benefit the heart and the brain, improving both mood and behavior.

DHA Delivers

The first of these two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA, is brain food and is crucial for vision. It's the most abundant fat in the brain and the retina, and it is vitally important during pregnancy, where it's linked to the development of the baby's brain and eyes. DHA is also an important component of breast milk, and it's well documented that breast-fed infants and toddlers score better on cognitive and visual tests, perhaps because of the DHA. Both the World Health Organization and the British Nutrition Foundation recommend that infant formula be supplemented with DHA. And in a 2002 study of almost 9,000 pregnant women published in the British Medical Journal, researchers found that the babies of women who ate fish once a week during their first trimesters had more than 3½ times less risk of low birth weight and premature birth.

DHA isn't just important for babies. In 1998, scientists at the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA found that volunteers who ate foods enriched with DHA showed an increase in HDL cholesterol (the protective kind) and lowered their triglycerides by 26 percent.

EPA Essentials

EPA, the other important omega-3 fatty acid found in salmon, has complementary benefits. The March 2007 edition of the journal Atherosclerosis published a study in which some Japanese men with unhealthy blood sugar levels were given 1,800 mg a day of EPA for approximately 2 years. The men had a significant decrease in the thickness of their carotid arteries along with an improvement of blood flow.

Another study, this one published in the medical journal The Lancet (also March 2007), showed that people with high cholesterol levels who were on statin drugs reduced their frequency of major cardio events by almost 20 percent when they added EPA supplements to their daily regimens.

The Power of the Pair

DHA and EPA are known to be mood enhancers. They incorporate themselves into cell membranes, making the membranes more fluid and making it easier for important brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin to get in and out. They help the brain to repair damage. Both DHA and EPA together are being studied in ongoing research at Harvard University by Andrew Stoll, M.D., for their effect on the depression of bipolar disorder. Also, a University of Pittsburgh study showed that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish such as salmon are associated with increased gray matter volume in areas of the brain commonly linked to mood and behavior.

A ton of studies link low omega-3 consumption to depression, mood disorders, and behavioral problems, including those that are especially worrisome among kids and teenagers, such as violence, acting out, and possibly ADHD. Research by Sarah Conklin, Ph.D., at the Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine Program in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, reported that people who had lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were more likely to have negative outlooks and to be more impulsive. And in 2001, Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health, published a study that found a correlation between a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids (mostly from fish) and lower murder rates!

Another way that omega-3 fatty acids provide health benefits is by reducing inflammation. Chronic, low-grade inflammation is emerging as a major risk factor for a host of chronic diseases, so much so that it was dubbed the "silent killer" in a Time magazine cover story a few years ago. Inflammation contributes to obesity, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, and probably some conditions we haven't even thought of yet. And the omega-3s are among the most anti-inflammatory compounds in the world. A diet filled with natural anti-inflammatories (such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and flaxseeds and the many anti-inflammatory compounds found in the vegetables featured in this book) is one of the best preventive health strategies you could possibly follow.

The omega-3s in fish are among the most heart-healthy nutrients on the planet. Even the FDA gave them a "qualified health claim" in September of 2006, stating that "supportive but not conclusive research shows that the consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease." Don't be fooled by the FDA's overly cautious language. Fish such as salmon is a big component of nearly every native diet that has been shown to be associated with lower rates of heart disease. According to Stoll, omega-3s reduce the rate of fatal arrhythmias by 30 percent. "In the United States alone, more than 70,000 lives could be saved each year if Americans had sufficient omega-3s in their bodies," he says.

We don't.

Most of us get a paltry 0.1 to 0.2 g a day of EPA and DHA (that's one-tenth to two-tenths of a gram!). (For what health organizations advise, see "EPA and DHA: What the Experts Recommend" on page 71.)

Personally, I'd like to see us get a minimum of 0.5 g a day of EPA and DHA, and ideally 1 to 3 g. You can meet the World Health Organization and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (WHO- NATO) recommendations consuming 2 servings of salmon (or other fatty fish such as mackerel) each week.

And if all this hasn't convinced you of the incredible health benefits of ent meals of salmon, let me appeal to your vanity. Salmon can make look better. Nicholas Perricone, M.D., whose books on skin care have topped the best-seller list on numerous occasions, recommends a "three day diet" for clearing up your skin that features -- what else -- salmon. For breakfast even! (Hey, it's not that weird to the folks fishing through the ice in Greenland!) Actually, Perricone's "three-day nutritional face-lift" claims your skin the same results that a face-lift would, by eating salmon two or three times a day, accompanied by fresh fruits and vegetables. I can't guarantee that, but I'm pretty sure you'd look and feel pretty terrific after allowing your skin and hair cells to be bathed in the nectar of those nourishing omega-3s.

How to Cook Salmon

Probably the most important thing to remember when cooking fish is that it will continue to cook after it is off the heat, so you have to remove it before it is done to your liking. As the fish is cooking, cut into it frequently with a fork and look inside to check for doneness.

While most fish taste best when they flake and are opaque, this is not the case with salmon, which tastes best when it's on the rare side. So when you're cooking, look for the center to still be translucent. As a general guideline, grill salmon for 7 to 8 minutes per each inch (3 cm) of thickness.

Because of the wonderful healthy fat content of salmon, it does well in many cooking styles, including grilling, baking, poaching, broiling, and pan-frying. Crazy as it sounds, some people poach salmon in their dishwashers!

EPA and DHA: What the Experts Recommend

The World Health Organization and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (WHO-NATO) recommend consuming 0.3 to 0.5 g a day of EPA and DHA.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends consuming two 4-ounce (115 g) servings of fish high in EPA and DHA per week (such as salmon) to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends 0.5 to 1.8 g per day of EPA and DHA to reduce the risk of cardiac disease, plus 1.5 to 3 g of alpha-linolenic acid, which is found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, for even more benefit.

Salmon: Wild versus Farm Raised

In this great debate, I'm strongly on the side of wild salmon. Here's why: Farm-raised salmon are the fish equivalent of factory-farmed animals. Much like factory-farmed animals, farm-raised salmon are raised in confined quarters (essentially saltwater feedlots) that often promote ill health and have to be controlled by the widespread use of antibiotics and/or pesticides. According to the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, farmed salmon are fed more antibiotics per pound of body weight than any livestock animal in North America.

To make matters worse, although some fisheries feed their salmon ground-up versions of the fish they might normally feed on, many farm-raised salmon are fed grains, which is not their natural diet. Because of this, farm-raised salmon have much less omega-3 fats in their bodies than wild salmon.

Also, farm-raised salmon have much higher levels of cancer-causing PCBs than their wild brethren. By some reports, they also contain other highly toxic pesticides. And U.S. investigators recently found that farm-raised salmon have been eating fish meal laced with the same chemical linked to a recent pet food recall: melamine.

Even more bad news: While wild salmon get their red color from dining on krill and ingesting a natural antioxidant carotenoid called astaxanthin, farmed salmon often get their color from pigments and colorings added to their naturally gray flesh.

On the other hand, wild Alaskan salmon are among the purest of all ocean species. Residing in remote and pristine waters, they're small fish that feed at the lower end of the food chain. And wild Alaskan salmon, including the sockeye salmon, are grown in sustainable fisheries free of antibiotics, pesticides, coloring agents, and growth hormones.

When my book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth came out, I received a number of letters from scientists working for factory-farmed salmon companies. For the most part, these were sincere, knowledgeable people who assured me that I was wrong about the dangers of farm-raised salmon. While each could only speak about their own fisheries, they assured me that, at least in their operations, great care was taken in the raising of these fish, that their contamination levels were very low, and that their fish contained plenty of omega-3 fats. Some of the scientists pointed out that I might be doing a disservice scaring people away from one of the healthiest foods on earth and that farm-raised salmon was certainly better than no salmon at all.

While I remain unconvinced, I'm willing to grant that some farm operations are caring and careful and produce a decent product. The problem is knowing which ones they are. In general, I stand by my position that wild salmon from reputable, reliable sources is best. When at all possible, I'd stick with the wild kind. My personal recommendation is salmon from Vital Choice seafood, a small company with more than fifty years of experience harvesting Alaskan salmon. It's run by dedicated fishermen who are committed to sustainable fishing and an absolutely pure product. You can find them online or through a link on my website under "Shopping" then "Healthy Foods."

©2008 Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S.

The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Author Bio
Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S, is a nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition, and health. He's a board-certified nutrition specialist with a master's degree in psychology, a life coach, motivational speaker, and former personal trainer with six national certifications. His most recent book is the much-praised The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth. His book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth: The Surprising Truth about What You Should Eat and Why has been endorsed by a virtual who's who in the world of integrative medicine and nutrition, including Mehmet Oz, M.D., Christiane Northurp, M.D., and Barry Sears, Ph.D.